Fantasy NASCAR race preview: Aaron's 499

by Eric McClung on April 21, 2010 @ 18:19:00 PDT


While the wrecks are often more memorable than the performance of the winner, creating a safe fantasy lineup for Talladega Superspeedway can be a fool's errand. Thankfully, there is a short list of drivers that have done a good job of avoiding trouble. There are even a few restrictor plate sleepers to choose from. The ability to drive in heavy traffic and stay in the draft of the fastest pack are the keys to victory at Talladega. Oh yeah, a little bit of luck doesn't hurt, either.

Location: Talladega, Ala.
Shape: Tri-oval
Length: 2.66 miles
Laps: 188
Turns 1-2: 33 degrees
Turn 3: 32.4 degrees
Turn 4: 32.5 degrees
Front stretch: 16.5 degrees
Back stretch: 2 degrees

Drivers to keep an eye on

Dale Earnhardt Jr. | No. 88 National Guard/AMP Energy Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports

With five wins, Talladega has been Earnhardt's most successful track. Although he has not won there in the last 10 races, Earnhardt has held an average running position of 15th. He was sharp at Talladega last year, holding the best average running position at both events. In the spring race, he finished second with an average running position of sixth. In the fall race, he finished 11th with an average running position of ninth. In 18 of Earnhardt's 20 career starts at Talladega, he has led at least two laps. A runner-up performance in the Daytona 500, the most recent restrictor plate race, coupled with consistently strong runs at Talladega makes Earnhardt a must start.

Joey Logano | No. 20 Home Depot Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing

Joe Gibbs racing driver Joey Logano
Logano has looked good at Talladega

In no time at all, Logano is scoring top-10 finishes at Talladega. In his first two career starts at the track last year, Logano finished ninth in the spring race and third in the fall. Logano held an average running position of 13th and 15th in those races, respectively, while spending over 60 percent of his laps in the top 15. Last year in the Nationwide Series' Aaron's 312 at Talladega, Logano finished third with an average running position of ninth. Reaching the front has not been an issue as Logano led at least one lap in each of the three races.

Brad Keselowski | No. 12 Penske Racing Dodge | Penske Championship Racing

In his first career Cup start at Talladega, Keselowski won last year's spring race in controversial fashion. He backed it up later in the season with a ninth place result in Talladega's fall race and a top-10 finish in the Nationwide Series' Aaron's 312. In fact, Keselowski had some slightly better loop data stats in the fall Cup race versus his win in the spring. His average running position improved from 17th to 14th. Percentage of laps in the top 15 increased slightly from 48.4 to 49.2. Both those improvements are signs of growth at Talladega for the young driver.

David Ragan | No. 6 UPS Ford | Roush Fenway Racing

Very quietly, Ragan has been among the most consistent restrictor plate drivers. In 2008, Ragan scored two top-five finishes at Talladega. Last season, Ragan's performance at nearly every track was down from the year before, but he left Talladega with finishes of 12th and 17th in addition to winning the Nationwide race there. In all four races, Ragan held an average running position ranging from eighth to 15th. In three of the four races, Ragan spent at least 75 percent of the race inside the top 15. In the Daytona 500, another restrictor plate track, Ragan finished 16th. He enters this week's race with a streak of three top-20 finishes. He's not an exciting play, but Ragan makes for a good start-saver in allocation formations.

Elliott Sadler | No. 19 Stanley/Bostitch Ford | Richard Petty Motorsports

Like Ragan, Sadler is another driver that warrants more consideration on restrictor plate tracks. Since 2007, Sadler has held an average running position ranging from 10th to 18th in six starts at Talladega. Dating back to 2003, Sadler has led at least one lap in 14 starts. Throw in two top 10s in the last three starts and Sadler's sleeper value becomes pretty clear. In the Daytona 500, a bad call for no new tires bumped Sadler to the middle of the pack, leaving him to finish 24th despite an average running position of 11th.

Temper your expectations

Matt Kenseth | No. 17 Valvoline Ford | Roush Fenway Racing

Despite some decent runs, leaving Talladega with a good finish has been a challenge for Kenseth. In 20 career starts, Kenseth has only six top-10 finishes, the most recent coming in 2006. In his last three starts at Talladega, despite recording an average running position ranging from 10th to 13th, Kenseth has been unable to finish better than 17th. In the Daytona 500, Kenseth's eighth-place finish was something a minor miracle given his average running position of 23rd and having spent only 7.2 of the race inside the top 15. Misfortune has kept Kenseth out of the top 15 in two of the last three races this season. Given how unlucky he has been at Talladega, things may not turn around for Kenseth just yet.

Tony Stewart | No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevrolet | Stewart-Haas Racing

Stewart-Haas Racing driver Tony Stewart
Luck hasn't been on Smoke's side

After winning the fall race at Talladega in 2008, Stewart struggled mightily at Talladega last year. He finished 23rd and 35th with average running positions of only 21st and 23rd. Even worse was the small percentage of laps Stewart was able to record in the top 15: 28.2 and 15.2 percent, respectively. During parts in each of the last two races, Stewart has looked like the best car on the track at times but finished outside of the top 20 each time. He took blame for the Big One last week at Texas Motor Speedway. With three crashes in the last six races at Talladega, the signals say pass on Smoke.

Kurt Busch | No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge | Penske Championship Racing

After seven straight top-10 finishes at Talladega, the last two years have been rocky for the older Busch brother. In those four starts, Busch has one top 10 but also two DNFs due to crashes. In three of the four races, Busch spent under 28 percent of the race in the top 15. It's been a tale of two Kurt's this season. Good Kurt has four finishes of sixth or better; bad Kurt has four finishes outside of top 20. Who shows up at Talladega? Only fantasy owners looking to take on a high-risk, high-reward driver should want to find out.

Mark Martin | No. 5 Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports

In his first starts at Talladega since 2006, Martin crashed in both races in 2009 despite starting seventh and second. Maybe it was just rust, but Martin hasn't finished all that well at Daytona in recent years, either. His only two wins at Talladega came back in the 90s. Over the last two weeks, Martin has been perhaps the luckiest driver in the series, finishing inside the top 10 with average running positions outside of the top 15. Maybe Martin's luck stretches into a third race, but his lack of recent restrictor plate success makes it unlikely.

Jamie McMurray | No. 1 Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Chevrolet | Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing

Even though McMurray has won the last two restrictor plate races - last year's fall race at Talladega and this year's Daytona 500 - he's no lock to repeat that kind of performance this week. Last year's win at Talladega was his first top-15 at the site since the spring race of 2007. Grabbing a good starting position has eluded McMurray; he has not started inside the top 20 since 2006. Other than his win at Daytona, McMurray has only one other top-15 finish this season. If there was more consistency, McMurray would make for an excellent fantasy option this week. As it is, he may not be worth the risk.

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About Eric McClung

Eric McClung has been profiled by the FSWA for covering the fantasy sports spectrum and is a three-time award finalist. Over the years, he's made several appearances in print and on radio. McClung began contributing to KFFL in 2008 and currently serves as one of KFFL's featured fantasy NASCAR experts. He's also captured the fantasy football championship in the KFFL staff league twice.

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